Fun Ways to Support Multilingual Learners

A MiddleWeb Blog

Over the winter break, my family and I dusted off some old board games. What was intended to be about an hour or so of family time turned into days of play, competition, collaboration, and relationship building. That is…until we played a game called Scattergories.

In Scattergories, you score points by naming as many objects as you can within a selected category, given an initial letter. There’s a time limit for each round and if someone else names the same object as you…neither person gets a point.

We also have a house rule that if the majority of the people playing vote that your answer isn’t really in the category identified, you also don’t get a point. For example, if the category is pizza toppings that start with the letter P, and I write down ‘PEANUTS,’ the group can decide that peanuts is not an acceptable answer since very few people would put them on their pizza.

Our game time turned terrible and contentious when the parameters for play were ‘farm animals that start with the letter h.’ At first I thought of common farm animals like ‘hog’ and ‘hen’…but I knew others would write those down and ruin my opportunity to score a point. So, I went with a more creative answer: ‘honeybee’.

Just in case you are wondering…bees (and all insects) are part of the animal kingdom. Bees are raised on farms called apiaries. My wife, however, disagreed. And so began nearly an hour of the entire family arguing, debating, googling information – eventually resulting in making a debacle of the entire evening (although we certainly learned a lot about bees!).

Adding Collaborative Learning to Multilinguals’ Classes

It was not my family’s greatest moment, but it did get me thinking. Recently I posted the first half of an article concerning one of my key New Year’s resolutions: working with teachers to fully serve and support Multilingual Learners (ML’s) in the classroom.

In that post, I addressed how teachers can build on student background knowledge, make classroom materials more accessible, and help students develop learning strategies.

While all three of these components are important, there is still much more that teachers can – and must – do to support ML’s. Our family’s recent board game binge-turned-debacle reminded me how invested each of us are in tasks – even challenging ones – when we have the opportunity to play with and practice new skills in collaborative settings.

Fostering Interaction

For Multilingual Learners to become proficient speakers in a new language, they must have frequent opportunities to speak, listen, and interact with others. Effective educators, therefore, plan multiple opportunities for their students to converse, process/discuss information, and explain their thinking in collaborative settings.

The goal is to structure student interaction that maximizes exposure to – and practice in – using the English language as they navigate key knowledge and skills taught in the classroom (Al Zoubi, 2018).

For example…

► Asking students (individually, in pairs, or as a group) to respond to teacher-posed questions in complete sentences with the support from sentence frames, visual aids, and posted vocabulary related to the concepts being taught. See an example of this in action here. (Teaching Channel)

► Listening and speaking games (see these suggestions from Edutopia or these from ELL author, popular blogger and classroom teacher Larry Ferlazzo). I also like adapting the format of word play games such as Taboo or It’s In the Bag to review key terms/concepts.

Here’s the Taboo description:

Here’s the In the Bag description:

► Using Flipgrid to encourage each student to respond orally to questions and/or to explain their thinking.

Variations from SIOP of think-pair-share that are suited to the language skills and needs of students.

► Individual or team response to a whiteboard using a tool like Padlet or Jamboard.

► Using reciprocal teaching or jigsawing to structure collaborative, language-based interaction with peers. See The Jigsaw Method from Cult of Pedagogy’s Jennifer Gonzalez here:

► Having students work in Reader-Writer-Response trios that require each student in a group to take a turn reading, writing, and speaking.

► Card-matching activities that encourage reading and production of language. For example, each term or concept has a pair of cards with the same information in two different forms (i.e. terms, descriptions, picture clues, definitions and/or synonyms). The cards are shuffled and then distributed to the class. Students must then describe the information on their own card to their peers until they find the student with the card that corresponds with their own.

► Sufficient wait time after posing questions to students…check out these recommendations from ELL specialist and coach Valentina Gonzalez.

► Opportunities for language learners to clarify key concepts in their first language as needed with a teacher, aide or peer.

Opportunities to Practice and Apply

To attain proficiency with a new language, it is essential that Multilingual Learners have numerous, daily opportunities to practice and apply what they are learning and interact with the content/language in a variety of ways. This should occur throughout the lesson…not just at the conclusion.

When new skills and knowledge are immediately put to use, they are more likely to be retained over time. Equally important, practice and application activities provide an opportunity for educators to assess student learning and adjust instruction.

For instance:

►Tangible or virtual manipulatives, or digital objects, that perform similarly to physical objects. Many of the virtual manipulatives typically used in mathematics education are available. For example, see these free, virtual manipulatives from Toy Theater, Math Playground, and Didax.

►Using sites like Radiolab, Science Friday, Listenwise, Stuff You Missed in Class, and Stuff You Should Know to provide listening tasks that require students to write down and share information with their peers both in writing and orally.

►Simulations (real or virtual) of science/math concepts. Check out these simulations from PhET targeted at middle school students.

►Teacher-provided songs, jazz chants, and other rhythmic activities to help students practice speaking in phrases and remember key concepts/content. For example, check out the following: a teacher-created vocabulary chant; the life cycle song (above) from Scratch Garden; the Preamble of the Constitution from School House Rock. Here’s a teacher-created chant.

►Student-created songs that demonstrate understanding of what is taught in a lesson. As an example, look at these songs written and performed by middle school students during their geology unit.

It’s worth the effort!

All of our students will enjoy learning in engaging and interactive ways. I hope these tips – shared from my “teacher educator” point of view – will be helpful to preservice educators and students, new teachers, and teachers new to working with multilingual students. Throughout this post I’ve highlighted some of the best educators to look to for advice and ideas. Others include Tan Huynh, Carol Salva and the folks at Seidlitz Education.


Al Zoubi, S. M. (2018). The impact of exposure to English language on language acquisition. Journal of Applied Linguistics and Language Research, 5(4), 151-162.

Curtis Chandler

Dr. Curtis Chandler (@CurtisChandler6) is an education professor at Brigham Young University-Idaho in Rexburg. Curtis has been a Kansas Teacher of the Year and a KS regional instructional tech coach. “I am a middle school teacher through and through,” he says. He enjoys spending time with his wife and his favorite students – his four sons. His two blogs for MiddleWeb include Class Apps (insightful articles about blending tech and teaching strategies) here, and New Teacher Tips, a blog dedicated to preservice and beginning teachers, here.

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